National Groups Rip Burns

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Senator Taken to Task for Handling of Libby Asbestos, Health Care Issues

Helena Independent Record

HELENA — Two national groups took aim at Republican U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns on Thursday, one releasing ads criticizing Burns for a “lack of leadership” in aiding Montanans affected by asbestos poisoning, and the other calling on him to support a sweeping patients’ bill of rights.

In competing press conferences in Helena, the League of Conservation Voters, a national environmental group, and Public Citizen, the consumer rights watchdog of presidential candidate Ralph Nader, took separate swipes at the senator.

The latest attacks come just three weeks before Election Day, when Burns faces off with Democrat Brian Schweitzer. Burns is looking to win a third term in the Senate and still holds a fairly comfortable lead in opinion polls over Schweitzer, a Whitefish farmer and political newcomer.

In its anti-Burns attack, the League of Conservation voters unveiled new television and radio spots taking Burns to task, saying “he consistently sides with special interests and against the people of Montana.” The league plans to spend $300,000 in Montana trying to defeat Burns, the groups says.

Specifically, the latest ads target Burns’ co-sponsorship of a bill to limit legal liability of asbestos companies. He later dropped the measure. The issue is critical in Libby, where dozens of deaths and illnesses have been linked to asbestos poisoning from a nearby W.R. Grace vermiculite mine.

The new ads are close copies of similar productions aired during the primary campaign.

The spots feature Libby residents hit by asbestos-related tragedy who decry Burns’ actions. It also criticizes Burns for taking campaign contributions from mining companies.

“He’s definitely standing up for the people who made me sick and killed my father,” says Libby resident Pat Vinion.

Helen Bundrock, another Libby resident, says, “I can’t understand why he wouldn’t want to help people in Montana instead of corporations.”

A spokesman for the Burns campaign called the ad a “desperate” attempt to prop up a flailing Democratic candidate.

“It shows how desperate the Schweitzer campaign and its allies are getting in this race,” said Burns spokesman Dick Wadhams.

“Sen. Burns had one interest and one interest only in that issue and that was to help those people who have suffered health problems, as fast and as expeditiously as possible,” Wadhams said of the asbestos measure that died in committee.

For its part, Public Citizen and its affiliates went after Burns on the issue of health care. Jamie Court, speaking in conjunction with Public Citizen, said Burns’ support is key in getting passage for a “real” patients’ bill of rights this session. Court is an author and executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. He said Burns is being hypocritical about patients’ rights, when has broad legal protections that most consumers don’t.

Court said it’s not fair that Burns can sue his own health insurer if he wants, but does not support the current congressional measure that offers all consumers broad legal rights against health insurance companies and managed-care organizations.

“Sen. Burns has to make a choice: support the right to sue for all his constituents or waive his own right to sue,” Court said before giving a such a waiver to the Burns office. “It’s really inappropriate for a public servant to have more remedies than the public he serves.”

Burns spokesman Larry Akey said the senator does support a patients’ bill of rights and has for years. However, Akey said, he does not back an unlimited right to sue insurance companies.

“We don’t believe the solution to these disputes is to go to court in every instance,” said Akey.

He also chided Democrats for failing to make concessions in the bill. Akey said both sides agree on such provisions as continuity of care, emergency room access and gag orders on doctors.

“The Democrats want a campaign issue; they don’t want this problem solved,” said Akey. “We could solve this issue in a heartbeat.”

Consumer Watchdog
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